If You Can’t See It, You Can’t Be It - the fight for recognition in women’s sport

Image Credit: Courtesy of: Sportfiles

Following big wins for Irish women’s soccer, Jack Keegan talks about the importance of seeing women succeed in sport.

Over the past year, we have seen the explosion of women’s soccer within Ireland and on the global stage. Vera Pauw’s “Girls in Green” are on the precipice of qualifying for their first-ever major tournament via a playoff, after defeating Finland and Slovakia in their final group games. Yet it wasn’t always this way. No, it wasn’t always this way at all. 

Established in 1973, the Irish women’s soccer team was always in the shadow of the men’s side due to myriad factors such as women’s soccer not being respected, societal views on women playing sport, and a lack of governance from Irish soccer’s answer to Charles Haughey, John Delaney. Due to this, many fantastic players who should have been lauded for their talents in their prime, rather than retrospectively being praised when they hung up their boots, went under the radar. Players like Olivia O’Toole, who is still Ireland’s leading goal scorer with 54 goals in 130 caps for Ireland. Players like Emma Byrne, who played in an Arsenal side that won the quadruple in the 2005/06 season. Her total number of caps for the Republic of Ireland is 134. If you were to combine statistics from the men's and women's teams, Byrne would tie for second with Shay Given for the most caps within the Republic of Ireland. And yet, these trailblazing women are unknown to the greater public and even within the Irish sporting community.

Action was required. The team had enough of the lacking infrastructure to support them and the insufficient funding they were receiving. The most egregious story to come out of the Republic of Ireland camp was that the situation had become so bad that various members of the squad were forced to change in and out of FAI tracksuits before and after trips away because they were forbidden to keep the kit. In April 2017, fourteen members of the squad, as well as officials from the players’ union and SIPTU, were in Liberty Hall hosting a press conference at which they they spoke on their various struggles over the previous two years to have action taken, including concerns over loss of payment and the general treatment of the squad, which had come to nothing.

An agreement was eventually reached between the players and the FAI after lengthy talks that went deep into the night. The terms of the deal were as follows: Access to a nutritionist and individual strength and conditioning programmes; gym membership for the squad; hotel accommodation to include at the very least working and reliable Wi-Fi; apparel for travel to be provided to the squad before meeting up at the airport; more home-based training sessions; all non-professional players to receive compensation of loss of earnings documented from their employers; goalkeeper coach to remain for a campaign; match fee for all international fixtures of €300; bonuses for competitive fixtures of €150 per win and €75 per draw; and qualification bonus to be agreed with the team captain and player representatives at least four weeks prior to the start of a qualification campaign. All very comprehensible and rational demands.

Flash forward to 2022, and the Republic of Ireland women’s team is the side on everyone’s lips. After a valiant draw against Sweden, who currently sit third in the world rankings, and two scrappy wins against Finland and Slovakia, the ladies' team finished second in Group A. They now begin an extremely convoluted journey to the World Cup via a qualifying tournament. 

After defeating Slovakia, they will now face Scotland in the second round of the qualifiers. The two highest-ranked winners of these matches will then qualify for the World Cup. If Vera Pauw’s team are deemed to be ranked third after winning the second round, they will play in a 10-team playoff tournament in Hamilton and Auckland in February 2023, where another three teams can win the remaining places. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

The Republic of Ireland women’s soccer team have come a long way from Liberty Hall in 2017. Now players like Katie McCabe and Megan Connolly are recognisable to the average punter. But above all else, these exceptionally talented women are proving to young girls across this island that there is a place for them in professional soccer.